Forget Kanye – Chinese Rapper Wang Yifan is Pushing the Real Envelop in the Sino-American Culture Wars

American rapper Kanye West has made headlines for his endorsement of Donald Trump’s politics and a recent remark which was both poorly delivered and even more poorly reported where West allegedly said that African slavery in the US was a matter of “choice”. But when it comes to really pushing the envelope, Chinese rapper Wang Yifan has shed light on an issue that will continue to dominate the rest of the 21st century.

While Americans have earned an international stereotype for being brash, loud and overt in their mannerisms, Chinese have earned a stereotype for being ordered, respectful, brutally honest and hard working. Of course conflicting stereotypes also exist as while the world is familiar with the stereotype of the “ugly American” abroad, there also exists a stereotype of an American culture that values customer service and hospitality (if you can afford it). At the same time, as more and more Chinese who just a few decades ago lived in poverty now have the wealth to travel abroad, the stereotype of the “aggressive Chinese tourist” has also emerged. For China’s part, the government is now monitoring behaviour of its citizens and has pledged to restrict more unruly individuals from travelling abroad through a merit based system. At the same time, while the US is making it ever more prohibitive for tourists to visit the United States, Washington has never been keen to educate its citizens about manners when travelling abroad.

As China gets set to overtake the US as the world’s richest and most powerful nation, the cultures of both China and the US will continue to come into contact more directly than at any time in the past. In elitist circles, US film critics have taken to slamming the incredibly popular Chinese film Wolf Warrior 2 because of its patriotic overtones. Yet it was the United States whose Rambo style action films shoved US nationalism down the throats of the wider world for decades.

Into this fray of the cultural battle between American exceptionalism and an increasingly confident and globally minded Chinese patriotism stepped Chinese rapper Wang Yifan. Wang is a former student at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in the US where he came under fire for free-styling the following rap lyrics at the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) annual gala:

“CSSA gala is so lit, one day we’ll make Americans call us daddy”.

The lyrics refer to China overtaking the US as the world’s leading superpower and in this sense, Wang is saying what many American country and western singers have often sung about when promoting US hegemony in their lyrics. At the time, two Chinese-American professors at PSU complained that Wang was being unnecessarily offensive. However, Wang hit back by saying that many Chinese-Americans who embrace their American identity end up being so loyal to US interests that they end up betraying Chinese values, the Chinese state and Chinese people whose loyalty is to their own traditions.

Far from ending the feud there, Wang released Chinese Daddy, a dis-track against the professors at PSU who criticised his initial “call us daddy” free-style while also targeting what Wang sees as a combination of American discrimination against Chinese, US ignorance of Chinese culture, and Chinese-Americans who end up doing the bidding of the US state against Chinese interests.

In his dis-track Chinese Daddy, Wang raps the following lyrics directed at ethnic Chinese people who sell out Chinese interests to the west:

“Worship foreign countries/ forget your origin/seek wealth and power by betraying your country, I’m talking about you/ Bow and scrape/ forsake good for the sake of gold, I’m talking about you/ Lower your voice/ apple-polish/ do your best in front of your American daddy/ fawn upon the rich and power/ double-dealing/ desperately fitting into the society/ funny”.

Wang further elaborated against the racist discrimination he received in the United States by recounting the following,

“My white roommate threw a shoe at me when I first came to America. Even my professor asked me to sit in the front row before an exam because he thought Chinese students may cheat”.

Wang’s experience has divided many in China and this divide in turn exposes an intellectual divide among many Chinese over the question of how to address a new era where China is more powerful than the United States but where the US still retains a great amount of global power as well as an attitude towards the wider world that is still characterised by the ethos of American exceptionalism.

While some including Beijing film critic Shi Wenxue criticised Wang for being “extreme” and negative in his rap while saying that officially China encourages hip-hop artists to reflect on the positive values of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics, others, including many young Chinese social media users have praised Wang for exposing a racist American superiority complex which often results in discrimination of Chinese people and the Chinese state, while he has also earned praise for standing up for Chinese pride in a defiant rap song.

Ultimately, patriotic Chinese want the US to acknowledge the reality of China’s influence in the world in so far as China as a state and most Chinese people will no longer put up with the US talking down to them. On the other hand, China has no desire to export its own political system or values abroad as the US continues to do.

A story which further highlights the cultural schism between US assertiveness and Chinese decorum when it comes to the “culture wars”, came to the fore in the form a recent news piece regarding a white American girl wearing a Chinese dress for a school dance made waves in both the US media and in China. After donning a traditional qipao,  Keziah Daum was accused by some in the US of “cultural appropriation”, but in China, social media users took to Daum’s defence saying that Daum was honouring Chinese culture by proudly showing off her qipao. Furthermore, many Chinese social media users stated that they were happy to see a positive element of traditional Chinese culture gain some popularity in the US.

This helps to understand the difference between the values that many in the US and many in China place on culture. While in the US “being offended” is now a cottage industry which has helped launch the media careers of many pundits and social commentators, China is fundamentally reactive rather than aggressive in defending its culture.

Wang Yifan’s rap came from a place of disgust at how patriotic Chinese are treated in the US and how alleged turncoat Chinese turn their backs on their culture and countrymen when they become immersed in American culture. By contrast, the Americans criticising Daum, including some Chinese-Americans have so embraced the US culture of turning “being offended” into opportunities for fame,  that they abjectly failed to realise that there is a difference between ridiculing a culture or displaying overt racism, vis-a-vis embracing a culture, wanting to learn more about it and promoting it in a positive way.

For the US, the debate must be about learning not to take all those “being offended” by harmless activities so seriously, while at the same time, the US must reflect on the very real issues of soft power chauvinism directed at foreign powers and actual racism against those from foreign cultures.

For China, the issue is a matter of temporarily embracing American style aggression in order to assert a patriotic Chines position versus fighting negativity from the west with a positive Chinese message. While China will have to address these issues in the midst of an economic boom and increased social prosperity, the US is having to address these issues as the country declines in terms of international power and prestige, while internal sectarian strife is growing in the biggest way since the 1960s. In this sense, China’s task is both simpler and will likely reach a conclusion in a much smoother manner.

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